Hardly an hour had elapsed since the break of dawn, but the Kapaaleeshwar temple in Mylapore was already bustling with devotees. Some prostrated themselves before the flagstaff and proceeded towards the sanctum sanctorum, chanting shlokas of the Lord. The temple cats, however, remained unperturbed by the show of spirituality, as they sat like loaves on the ground, eyes closed, almost zen-like. The fat ginger ball of fluff was the prime attraction among the kids, who found the ritual of standing in serpentine queues, all to get a pinch of kumkum and vibhooti, a tad cumbersome. However that morning, the feline superstar of the temple got a dose of his own medicine when Kamakshi mami gave him the royal ignore, by stepping on his sensitive paws and refusing to even apologize for her transgression.
Who could blame poor mami, however, for the sheer audacity? So engrossed she was in cataloguing the misdeeds of her family that she didn’t hear the hiss and the subsequent protest raised by her victim.
“Hey Shiva. I have spent my entire life paying homage to you. And this is how you reciprocate it! How can you remain a mute spectator seeing my misery? I’m surrounded by useless people. The old man does nothing but nod his head at whatever I say. And that brat! Lazy to the core! This must be fun for you, right?”
Thankfully, her mutterings were barely audible, and the people around her anyway would have mistaken them for some random hymns. For Kamakshi mami indeed had a melodious voice. Even while picking up quarrels with her husband or her granddaughter.
The divine singing of MS Subbalakshmi reverberated in the living room. Ah, mama is up.
The man of the house was seated on an old sofa. The sound of the key turning in the lock didn’t elicit a response from him. His head kept pace with the Vishnu Sahasranamam coming from that old DVD player, which still boasted of an exalted place in the modest 2 BHK house.
“Hey, Mr. Naradamuni. Did you drink your coffee?”
Mama, whose name by the way was not Naradamuni, looked up. He nodded, simultaneously giving MS company.
Kamakshi mami glared at him but refrained from saying another word. She proceeded to the kitchen to make herself a glass of filter coffee.
“Has Vaidurya woken up?”
Mama shook his head. “It’s not yet eight”. The harikambhoji raag he adopted while making this seemingly innocuous statement only made matters worse. Mami came out of the kitchen with a steel tumbler in her hand, sans the dabara bowl.
“What do you mean by ‘not yet eight’? She is ten years old, and already sleeping like Kumbhakarna.”
Having attained enlightenment after forty years of marriage, mama kept mum. A rookie would have jumped onto the battlefront and asked her the correlation between the two.
Encouraged by the silence, Kamakshi mami continued, “You know the granddaughter of our neighbour Ambujam? She wakes up at 5AM. Every single day.”
“So what?” Mama decided to defend his granddaughter.
“Why can’t our Vaidurya do the same?”
“What will she do?”
“Well, for starters, she can practice singing.”
“She sings well. Our beloved Vaidurya.” Mama’s face beamed.
Mami sat down, gulped down the contents of the tumbler in one go, grimaced and put it down on the centre table. “It became cold.” She stared at mama, as if he were solely responsible for turning her piping hot filter coffee into an insipid cold latte from Starbucks.
“Come on, Kamakshi. She likes music.”
“You call that music. You know what happened last Sunday? No, you wouldn’t know. You were busy watching Maradona and Messi videos on a loop. So many guests had come to admire my golu dolls, and you had locked yourself in your room, giving virtual coaching lessons to the Argentinian football team.”
“Ah, come on. As if you have resigned from the advisory panel of BCCI!”
“What? Oho! Sarcasm, Mr. Naradamuni. I also know how to talk like you, ok?”
Inwardly mama heaved a sigh of relief as the conversation which had taken off from their supposedly feckless granddaughter took a detour to their modest Navaratri household and finally landed up in international territories. He got up and switched off the DVD player. It turned out to be a grave error on his part.
“Don’t change the topic! I recognize your tactics.”
Mama sat down and looked at the clock. Activate timer.
“That child.. why are you giving me that blank look again? I told you, right? Yes.. she is learning Carnatic music. And here is our Vaidurya… who wants to learn English music.” Mami spat out the last two words, as though Corona virus had refused to dislodge itself from her throat.
“That’s also music, right?”
“Oh really! Last week, a lady from the neighbourhood had requested Vaidurya to sing a song in front of our golu.” Mami paused, preserving energy for the missive that was to follow. “Poor soul. She was expecting at least a Shree Gana Natha from our granddaughter. And what did this monkey do? Sang some idiotic ‘hagana matha’ or something like that. That too wiggling her bottom.” Mami’s eyes grew wide with shock.
“Aiyyo. That is ‘Hakuna Matata’, and it’s a very famous song. It means ‘no worries’, my dear wifey.”
“Shiva! The irony of it!” With that, mami got up, took her steel tumbler and mumbling about her cursed life, went to the kitchen, to grind coconut chutney for mama and putting bread in the toaster for the girl mistakenly born into a Tamil family.
Breakfast was a quiet affair. Mama had managed to convey in a coded language to Vaidurya that she should keep mum and not pester her grandmother for sliced cheese or extra butter.
“When is your mom coming back?” The sudden question by mami caught the girl unawares.
“Kamakshi. I think our daughter spoke to you also”, mama muttered in between spoonfuls of pongal.
“You call that talking. After saying hello and enquiring about my health, she ordered me to pass on the mobile to you.”
“That’s because you keep on criticizing her.”
“I never do anything of these sorts. I just wanted to know what was there to see in Ooty when she could have gone to Madurai?”
As it happened, the only daughter of the Neelakanthans was vacationing in the hills with her husband to get away from the corporate drudgery, Vaidurya’s latest demands to get a Persian kitten, and the constant bickering of Kamakshi mami, in that order.
Finally, peace reigned at the dining table when mama praised mami’s coconut chutney, even declaring it to be much tastier than the one prepared by his mother. “Come on, stop exaggerating my culinary skills”, dismissed mami half-heartedly with a wave of her hand.
Kamakshi mami was frying the last of the ribbon pakoras. Vaidurya had wanted some glitters for her upcoming school project, and mama had accompanied her. He would have given his right arm to escape from the menial jobs which were assigned to him randomly – like kneading the dough for the pakoras, tasting it to check for salt and spices, and making him rush to the nearby grocery for oil, ghee or any other item which the queen of the kitchen deemed as lifesaving.
The doorbell chime sprang into action. Mami looked at the wall clock. It cannot be these two. Switching off the gas, and after washing her hands, she rubbed them against her cotton saree. Ensuring that the pakoras were inside the container and well covered, she went to answer the door. It was her neighbour Ambujam.
“Come inside, Ambujam. I was just preparing to take some rest.”
“Shall I come later then?” Ambujam mami didn’t budge.
“No problem. I can do it later. But then, you know, with these two around……”
“What are you saying, Kamakshi? You are blessed to have such a good husband. He is Lord Neelakanthan personified. And Vaidurya. She is a diamond.” Ambujam mami stopped, waiting for Kamakshi mami to interject and dismiss the statement with her characteristic nonchalance. Alas! That wasn’t forthcoming on that day. Probably she was too exhausted that day.
“Anyway. I just came to chat with you. Saturdays can be so boring.”
In between glasses of filter coffee and plates of ribbon pakoras, Ambujam mami conveyed to Kamakshi mami that their favourite Chennai had gone to the dogs, the famous television actress from a never-ending serial was actually the mistress of a famous mill owner, and children were growing more disobedient by the day.
Suddenly, Kamakshi mami pricked up her ears. “What was that again, Ambujam?”
Her friend paused, took a deep melodramatic breath and continued. “Yeah, it’s true, Kamakshi. That family is known to my sister-in-law. The child was very adamant that she wanted a Rottweiler as a pet. Their parents put their foot down. And now, see what happened?”
“What?” Kamakshi mami was eager to know the outcome.
“The child ran away. Ok, Kamakshi. I have to rush now. The latest episode of the serial will start soon. The same one, dear, where the third wife of the hero confronts the second wife of her fourth husband.” All these sentences were uttered in one single breath.
Ambujam mami took leave hastily, leaving Kamakshi mami with an eerie feeling in her pits. Would Vaidurya do the same? Nah! She was too naïve. But then, so was that child, right?
“I am overreacting”, decided mami and shrugged off the nagging thought.
She must have dozed off sitting on the sofa. The clock struck five. Kamakshi mami woke up with a start. She was alone. “VAIDURYA.” She called out. No response. Her heart was pounding now. “Where are you?” This was addressed to her husband.
Ominous thoughts crossed her mind. What if they had met with an accident? Where was the damn phone when she needed it the most?
“Hey Lord Shiva. I will come and put 500 Rs in the hundi. Please protect my family.”
After what seemed like an eternity, there was a loud knock on the door. The familiar one-two-one thuds made by Vaidurya. Mami wiped her eyes which had teared up unbeknownst to her. She sprinted to the door. There they were! The famous partners-in-crime.
“Where were you both?” No sooner had mama and Vaidurya entered the room than mami came out all guns blazing.
“We had gone to her friend’s place. You know, her grandfather is also my ex-colleague.”
“You didn’t even have the decency to inform me, old man.”
“Of course I did. I called you. You didn’t pick up the phone. I reckoned you must have been busy with the savouries. So I left a message on WhatsApp. You didn’t check it?”
In typical Indian soap opera fashion, mami went on a flashback mode. She had kept the phone in the kitchen while she was preparing the ribbon pakoras. TING! A WhatsApp message from Ambujam mami. ‘Family burnt to cinders because the wife was frying banana fritters while talking on her mobile.’ Shivering at the thought of the painful death the members might have experienced, mami had put the flame on low, gone to the bedroom to place the device on the mattress, and had resumed her activities. That explained why she didn’t hear the ringing notification.
“Life is so boring without Vaidurya.”
Neelakanthan mama looked at Kamakshi mami quizzically. So, had the apocalypse finally hit earth? She hasn’t been herself since our presumed disappearance.
Vaidurya was back at her parent’s house. Mami had stopped nagging her husband. She even let him watch football matches on TV. His foreboding thoughts accelerated when mami threw him a googly. “I have been very cruel to all of you, right?”
What? Had that Ambujam drilled some more nonsense into her head?
Mami continued in a melancholic voice. “That day… when you both didn’t return from the stores.. it was the worst day of my life. I almost gave up hope, you know?” Mami stopped, for fat tears streamed down her cheeks.
Mama went up, sat near her and said in a comforting tone. “Kamakshi! Why are you unnecessarily blaming yourself for something that never happened. And what’s this about being cruel and all? My dear, you have sacrificed a lot for this family. You have stood by me steadfast in bad times. I know that you deeply care for all of us. How can I hold a grudge against you?”
“Maybe I should have been a little more accommodating.”
“Be as you are, Kamakshi.”
“I must be a fool. I realised at 60 that I need to mind my own business.”
“Nothing like that, Kamakshi. You have your own quirks, and I love you exactly for that. As for life, well, it’s never too old to live one’s life to the fullest. Right? So, how about forgetting Vaidurya for a moment? Shall we go to Marina beach?” Mama winked at her.
Mami blushed. “Ok, I am getting ready.” With that, she got up. “Oh by the way, today there is some league match on TV at 8PM. I looked up this player. He is very good looking. Some Sebastian Tiger.”
Now who is this player? Mama’s confused look might have been evident, because mami expressed shock at his ignorance.
“That player from Germany. You call yourself an expert in football, and you don’t even know the names of international players.” With that, mami fished out her phone, scrolled through the gallery and showed a picture to mama.
“Aaahhhh… That is Bastian Schweinsteiger.”
“That’s what I said. Anyway, enough of wasting time. Let me put on that new Chettinad cotton saree.” Before mama could say anything, mami went to her room.
Some things never change. Accepting the inevitable, Neelakanthan mama sat down. It would be a good 45 minutes before Kamakshi mami came out. He took The Hindu in his hands and proceeded to read the sports column for the hundredth time.
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